In the anticipatory tumult leading up to Monday's putative climax of the Iran nuclear talks, it's become easy to forget that there is no truly satisfactory solution to the problem posed by the Tehran regime’s deep desire to reach the nuclear threshold. The most likely outcome of the talks, I'm hearing this week, is that there will be an agreement to continue talking.
There are two main camps in the West focused on the negotiations. The first includes the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, much of the U.S. foreign-policy elite and most European governments. This group believes that a negotiated settlement with Iran will more or less guarantee that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — Iran's supreme leader — and the ayatollahs who will succeed him — Khamenei is not a young man — will never find themselves within easy reach of the bomb.
This pro-negotiation camp believes that a treaty could perpetually keep Iran a year away from going nuclear. The more Utopian of these advocates for a negotiated solution think that a nuclear treaty will also spark a process of liberalization inside Iran. The capitalists among them believe — with greater proof than the Utopians — that a treaty will open a large market that sanctions has put off-limits.
The other, opposing, camp, in essence believes that no deal the Iranians would ever accede to would be good enough. This group includes the Israeli government, most Arab governments — the Arabs, not the Jews, are the traditional rivals of Persian Iran — Iranian dissidents — who loathe the cruel and authoritarian Iranian regime — and much of the U.S. Congress. This camp believes that a deal, should it be reached, will enshrine Iran’s right to a nuclear program in international law — an idea it finds an anathema.
It thinks that Iran, once sanctions are lifted, will rebuild its economy and then ignore its nuclear obligations. It believes that the Iranian government is probably already cheating and obfuscating in its effort to go nuclear, and will redouble these efforts once a deal is signed. This group thinks that sanctions, combined with the credible threat of force, are the only means to keep Iran from going nuclear.
Both camps make strong arguments. But evidence suggests that each is wrong to think it possesses the foolproof solution to a nuclear challenge. The Iranian government is smart and capable. It has shown itself willing to make enormous sacrifices on behalf of the unwilling people it governs in order to move closer to the bomb.
Despite the vigorous case presented by advocates for a deal, there's a reasonable chance that Iran is outplaying the West at this very moment, and will continue to outplay the West within the framework of a deal. At times during this process, the Obama administration and its European allies have appeared to be more desperate for a deal than the Iranians, which is odd because it isn't the West that's suffering under sanctions.
But Western negotiators also understand that, in one crucial way, they are already on the back foot — Iran is a nuclear-latent state. The Western powers are fighting a rearguard action to keep Iran from doing something that it knows how to do.
The anti-Iran hardliners look at the weak Western negotiating position. They take into account Iran’s obvious nuclear capabilities and its long record of hiding its nuclear facilities and intentions, and argue intently for the hammer. They say that since tough sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, the threat of tougher sanctions will keep it there.
But Western negotiators understand that their Iranian counterparts — in particular the seemingly moderate Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif — are already under enormous pressure from hardliners in Iran, and that these hardliners are looking for any excuse to end what they consider a humiliating charade of negotiations.
A new round of punitive sanctions would constitute such an excuse. Hardliners who call for a dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program must recognize that they are creating conditions for an eventual military confrontation.
If the partisans of negotiation overvalue both the effectiveness of diplomacy and the Iranian commitment to reasonableness, the skeptics overvalue the efficacy of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Air strikes against Iranian facilities could work, of course, to blow up much of the fuel-cycle infrastructure and set back the nuclear program by a number of months or years. But air strikes cannot destroy the knowledge Iran already possesses.
Air strikes will not break the will of the ayatollahs and of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Air strikes would destroy, however, the international sanctions regime that the Obama administration and Congress have put in place. If Iran is subject to a preventative attack, many of the U.S.'s allies in the sanctions campaign will melt away. Much of the world will express sympathy for an Iran under attack, and Iran could capitalize on that sympathy to rebuild its nuclear weapons program in the open.
A nuclear deal could codify Iran’s right to enrich uranium, and could set Iran on the slow but steady path to the nuclear threshold. The collapse of negotiations could move Iran and the West quickly toward confrontation that could end in disaster, and could set Iran on the fast and steady path to the nuclear threshold.
There are no fail-safe choices here. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.
Jeffrey Goldberg is author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror" and winner of the National Magazine Award for reporting. He has covered the Middle East as a national correspondent for the Atlantic and as a staff writer for the New Yorker. Read more reports from Jeffrey Goldberg — Click Here Now.
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